Homeland Security’s Border Sensors Are a $700-Million Boondoggle

DHS can’t tell if its high-tech border fence is worth it


The Department of Homeland Security’s high-tech border fence is an embarrassment.

For years, DHS has planned to line the Arizona-Mexico border with a network of sensors mounted on vehicles and towers and in the ground. In theory, the high-tech gear will help catch people when they cross the border in remote areas, freeing up Border Patrol agents for other jobs.

But DHS has no clue if its sensors work—and the agency may be putting them in all the wrong places.

That’s the conclusion of a recent report by Congress’s watchdog. Customs and Border Protection, the DHS sub-agency in charge of installing and testing the gadgets, “plans to conduct limited testing of the highest-cost program, but not its effectiveness and suitability for the various environmental conditions, such as weather, in which it will be deployed,” the Government Accountability Office stated in its March report.

That’s trouble, because the weather—yes, the weather—is what helped doom a previous border plan, the $1-billion SBInet, with which DHS meant to cover the entire border with sensors.

Among other problems, SBInet’s sensors didn’t function properly when surrounded by hills, in inclement weather or at night. In other words, the sensors didn’t work in exactly the kind of rugged areas where they were supposed to work.

In 2011, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano canceled the program.

In SBInet’s place, DHS created the slimmed-down Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan. It was designed to avoid SBInet’s mistakes—and was much less ambitious. Only 53 miles of the Arizona border, concentrated south of Tucson, is to be covered in an interlocking web of fixed surveillance towers, mobile radar systems and ground sensors.

Integrated Fixed Tower. GAO photo

By far, the most expensive part of the plan are the Integrated Fixed Towers—surveillance towers packing a suite of cameras and radar that can detect people and vehicles from miles away.

The program will eventually cost anywhere from $500 million to $700 million, with the towers comprising the bulk of the price.

“This testing, as outlined in CBP’s test plan, is not consistent with DHS’s guidance, which states that testing should occur to determine effectiveness and suitability in the environmental conditions in which a system will be used,” the report warned.

There’s another problem. Even if the sensors work, they may be in the wrong place. Arizona is no longer the busiest hot spot for illegal border crossings—as it was when the Arizona plan first came about.

“In April 2013, because of threats shifting away from the Tucson sector in Arizona to the Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas, Border Patrol requested that [the Border Patrol Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition] reduce the quantity of IFT units to be procured and deployed to Arizona from 50 to 38.”

Another problem, according to the GAO, is that DHS rarely records when its towers are used to assist in apprehensions. This means there’s no accurate way of testing whether the towers are worth the price.

DHS says it already has capable sensor towers, having been tested by other customers in the field. This strategy “mitigates the risks in a way that is consistent with the nature of the acquisition and without added cost and bureaucracy,” the agency stated in a letter to the GAO.

But at more than $1 billion, the U.S. border plan is looking more like a waste of money.

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